Green activists hope Pope's presence and recent encyclical on ecology will strengthen their causes
By Girish Gupta
QUITO, July 3 (Reuters) - Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse nations on earth, boasting the Amazon rainforest, Andean mountains and the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution.
Yet with a heavy reliance on oil and mining, Ecuador, where Pope Francis begins his South America tour this weekend, is a prime example of tensions between politics, business and the environment at the heart of last month's landmark encyclical.
In the first papal document dedicated to the environment, the Argentine-born pontiff urged world leaders to hear "the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor" and reverse mankind's degradation of the planet.
"This century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems," warned the Pope, who arrives in Quito, the capital, on Sunday on the first stop of a tour also including Bolivia and Paraguay.
Ecuador's leftist leader, Rafael Correa, who won election in 2006 in part on a promise to preserve the country's unique biodiversity, is under fire from environmentalists who say he gives a greater priority to business.
Though activists are not scheduled to meet him, they hope the Pope's mere presence, and recent international public attention over his encyclical, will strengthen their causes: from halting oil exploration in the Yasuni jungle to blocking a new law they believe will overcommercialize the Galapagos.
Anti-Correa protesters, who have been on the streets in recent weeks to complain about tax increases and alleged autocracy in government, may also raise the environmental banner to try to embarrass the president during Francis' visit.
One of the poorest nations in South America, the small Andean country of 15 million people encapsulates tensions replicated across the Pope's native, resource-rich continent.
Colonizers first ventured through South America on a quest for gold and silver half a millennium ago. Riches including oil and copper still drive the region's economies today.
OPEC member Ecuador relies on oil for half its foreign income, according to the World Bank, and produces about half a million barrels per day.
That sustains steady economic growth that has fueled welfare policies and development, but has also meant drilling around important environmental sites.
Some scientists think the number of all types of species in Ecuador could be around a million, more than a tenth of the world's total.
Ecuador is home to 2,308 threatened species - including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and plants - far more than any other country, according to the latest data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Endangered species include the white-bellied spider monkey, the giant otter and a tree, Rollinia helosioides, of which there is thought to be only one living example in the world.
Perhaps nowhere has the environmental debate raged more than in Ecuador's eastern Yasuni National Park, a 9,820-square- kilometer (6,100-square-mile) swathe of rainforest that lies at the intersection of the equator with Andean mountains and Amazon rainforest.
"Eastern Ecuador is likely the most species-diverse place on the planet," said Kelly Swing, a professor of tropical ecology at Quito's San Francisco University.
However, about 846 million barrels of oil lie under Yasuni's soil, one-tenth of the country's total proven reserves.
Challenging the world to save Yasuni, Correa in 2007 asked wealthy countries to donate $3.6 billion to offset revenue lost by not drilling there.
But the initiative brought in less than 4 percent of the requested amount so Correa scrapped the plan six years later and authorized drilling, saying the world had failed Ecuador.
Oil spills in the country's northeastern jungle decades ago are the subject of one of the world's biggest environmental lawsuits.
Local plaintiffs, including environmental groups, continue to battle Chevron Corp in international courts, seeking billions of dollars for damage they allege was caused by Texaco, which Chevron later acquired.
As well as oil, a nascent gold and copper mining sector is hoping to attract $5 billion of investment over the next five years. Environmentalists worry this could scar the landscape.
ORIGIN OF SPECIES
Ecuador is perhaps best-known for its Galapagos Islands, around a thousand kilometers (620 miles) off the Pacific Coast.
Darwin investigated the islands' natural history and geology in the 1830s and used his notes to lay the foundations of evolutionary biology in the "Origin of Species."
Galapagenos are angry at new legislation that they say could reduce subsidies and open doors to big business.
"This new law will precipitate an environmental crisis by opening the flood gates to unfettered commercialization by wealthy and well-connected offshore investors who will plunder what is left of this fragile paradise," said Sean Keegan, 61, a travel agent who lives on the Galapagos island of San Cristobal.
The international slide in oil prices caused the central bank to slash this year's growth forecast to 1.9 percent from 4.1 percent. Pressure is mounting on Correa to find more revenue.
In recent months, his government raised import tariffs and cut social security contributions.
Those measures and more recent proposals to raise inheritance and capital gains taxes have led to large nationwide protests that are likely to continue during the Pope's visit.
The president says the protests are part of a plot to overthrow his government, adding that the latest tax proposals will only have an impact on the wealthiest. (Additional reporting by Alexandra Valencia.; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Andrew Cawthorne and Jeffrey Benkoe)
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